Many people may have heard the phrase “Keep Austin Weird” promoting the Texas city. Less known, but what we learned when in the city for HighEdWeb11, is its true meaning: The ubiquitous T-shirts read “Keep Austin Weird: Support Your Local Businesses.” The city (any city) would be much less interesting if its corner grocery stores were supplanted by SuperWalMarts, eclectic eateries usurped by Applebees and quirky cafes succumbed to Starbucks.
It’s a lesson we in higher ed need to heed. Not just because of anticipated increased competition from online schools, but because we’re sometimes our own worst enemies at what we do. Here are a few lessons, related to Austin and higher ed, from the many great sessions.
Be nice. Austin’s reputation as a friendly city proved well-earned. Bartenders, baristas and bellhops alike are incredibly nice, and complete strangers struck up conversations with us. Alana Riley’s project management presentation included plenty of good information, but I especially liked her discussion of being positive and nice. Psychology shows, she noted, we think better when we’re happy. “It doesn’t take much for someone to feel appreciated,” she said. “And it doesn’t take much for someone to feel unappreciated.” Have you made your co-workers, students, friends and/or loved ones feel appreciated lately? If not, why not?
Be yourself. Austin embraces its weirdness, its quirks, its offbeat charm. Karlyn Morrissette’s oddly titled “What Colleges Can Learn from the Insane Clown Posse” taught us, among other things, the controversial performers got where they are by knowing who they are and following through. Too many schools, Karlyn observed, try to be everything to everyone which makes them nothing special. (She also had a great line about colleges extolling their exclusivity: “Why do you brag about all the students you don’t educate? Brag about those you do educate.”)
Be interesting. Austin gave us a food truck festival, a Dia de los Muertos” (Day of the Dead) celebration, a nightly event where people watch bats swarm a bridge, live music everywhere and more. Colleges are inherently interesting places, so why do so many things (committees, university politics, acronym mania) paint such an uninteresting picture? We should focus on the engaging things going on around us and promote them any way we can. Georgy Cohen, whose “Carrying the Banner: Reinventing News on Your University Website” earned best presentation honors, discussed how evolving technology allows us to tell so many more interesting stories about intriguing people in new ways, and to share them widely.
Be about people. With apologies for tortured grammar, my point is that people matter most. The nice folks in Austin do customer service so well in large part because folks seem so interested in people and in helping them. Keynote speaker Chris Wilson reminded us that, despite the technology, what we do is really about finding ways to help people. Web 2.0 is not about technology, he said, it’s about caring for the people who use our site or comprise your community. Or, as Mike Petroff noted in a session on customer service via social media: “You have to out-care your competition.” What a great goal!
It was such awesome city that we were sad to leave Austin (or “Awestin,” if you prefer). Wouldn’t you want your campus to be one where people — from the future students bowled over by tours, visitors to special events and especially alumni — are sad when they have to leave it? That’s where the web and social media come in, providing a way those who love our campus never really leave, as they remain a part of community. We miss Austin already, but it gave us so many great lessons that will live on.